East Bay Restaurants
I learned to really cook in Berkeley, graduating from Kraft Dinner
with stuff added to making my own pasta and sauces from scratch. Food
consciousness permeates this city, which is a great place to cook as
well as eat out. (If you have access to a kitchen while you're there,
e-mail me for some pointers on sources.) Competition and consumer
awareness keeps quality high. Here is a list purged of places which
are not worthwhile (except for a few recent negative experiences I've
left in). See also my non-purged list of San Francisco restaurants.
One of the early small plates places: no reservations (get there by
5:30 to avoid waiting), same kitchen that serves the more upscale
Citron next door. Great frites and flatbreads, but most of the food
is good, though lighting is dim, tables are crowded together, and the
overwhelming feel is that of a bar serving exceptionally good food
instead of a proper restaurant.
Upscale Indian without heaviness of any kind. Menu evolves (slowly)
on a seasonal basis; dishes now served "family-style" to share, with
individual plates of rice and garnishes. Prix fixe available, but not
really much of a bargain. Eating here gives me a warm feeling, when
it's not too crowded or rushed. At the head of Solano in Berkeley.
A hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese sandwich joint in a strip mall on San
Pablo just north of Central in El Cerrito. The sandwiches are
credible, though not as good as at Saigon Sandwich in SF. Papaya salad
and fresh spring rolls are available premade, and the cooler contains
some Vietnamese bean-and-jelly dessert drinks. A decent option for
lunch if you find yourself in the area.
Longtime solid Cal-continental restaurant in an old house on Piedmont
in Oakland. Think of it as a junior version of Chez Panisse that
hasn't quite gotten the press. A good place to take your relatives --
not quite as adventurous as one might want, but there's always duck on
the menu, and the house-bottled wines are quite nice. We recently
unearthed a "best restaurants" list from twenty-five years ago, and
this was one of the few names we recognized.
It was already too noisy as we walked in at six on
a Sunday night. Another industrial hard-surfaced California
restaurant. The early prix-fixe which we were too late for was potato
salad, steamed mussels, and poppyseed cake, for $13. Not very
exciting, but a good deal compared to the $12 we paid for seven spears
of admittedly perfectly cooked asparagus in vinaigrette. (The tomato
soup was good, but not exceptional.) The signature dish here is pork
rojo with hominy, a large serving in a deep bowl, with housemade fried
tortilla strips and a scoop of guacamole; it was terrific, a dish I
will try to recreate at home. Oricchiette with duck ragu was too rich,
and the "formaggio tartufo" had lost whatever essence of truffle it
once possessed; the thick, chewy pasta and the cheese dominated,
meaning the duck was wasted, it might as well have been pork for all
the impact it had. Apple/almond crisp with vanilla bean ice-cream
wasn't too sweet or rich, but was more soggy than crisp, in fact quite
soupy, with the apples a little too firm; it was downright
amateur. Service was rushed and inconsistent; sometimes plates were
whisked away almost before the last bite, sometimes they sat. Lalime
and Rivoli set the standards this restaurant aspires to, but it has
some way to go yet: one good dish does not a restaurant make. Quite a
disappointment. On Solano in Berkeley.
This Turkish restaurant smack in the middle of the East
Indian strip on University below San Pablo in Berkeley still has the
elephant pillars and folk figurines left over from the previous
inhabitants. There's an all-you-can-eat buffet for $8.99 (a couple of
bucks cheaper at lunch), which appears to be mostly stewed vegetables
and legumes (a good selection). We ordered off the menu. The meze
platter came with four spreads (taramasalata, roasted eggplant,
spinach-and-yogurt, cucumber-dill-and-yogurt), plus feta filo "cigars"
and thinly-sliced dried spiced beef, all excellent (I would suggest
this alone as a decent lunch). We followed that up with four types of
kebabs, all of which came with the same sides of rice with raisins and
nuts, salad, grilled tomato and grilled pepper; these were also
uniformly good. There isn't much ambience (it's as if they sneaked
into an empty storefront and set up shop intending to disappear
tomorrow) and service is pedestrian, but it's worth braving these for
the food, particularly given the lack of Greek competitors in the East
Healthy Mexican fast food (order at counter). I could eat here every
week. Nice attention to the details (salsas, aguas frescas). Tamales
are terrific. Sometimes unattended kids can be a pain. At the head of
Solano in Berkeley (preferable), and on College in Oakland.
Very good falafel, moving to #2 on my East Bay
list behind Zatar; light, made fresh, properly seasoned. The rest of
my meze plate matched it: baba ghanouj with proper smokiness, grilled
eggplant salad, hommous, tahini. The pita was a bit of a letdown,
rather white-bread and fluffy. Housemade hamentashen were quite
good (usually these suck). Tiny place, so get there early, or get
takeout and sit under the BART tracks. On Solano in Albany.
Downstairs offers quiet perfect prix-fixe meals for forty to sixty
dollars (book well ahead); upstairs started out as a simple cafe, but
has become Northside Berkeley's upscale canteen, with attitude
infecting the staff. Still, go for lunch, ignore the overtones, and
have great pizzas, salads, and daily specials constructed from the
Cafe de la Paz
Great idea, Latin-American cafe-style, but uneven: some dishes are
great, others fail to sing. Inexpensive, considering the
neighbourhood. On Shattuck Avenue in north Berkeley.
Your best bet in the blossoming Fourth Street area. Emphasis on meat,
cooked properly, comfort food with some daring. Large room can be
noisy, but service is good, portions ample. Nice meat counter at the
back for takeout roast chicken, duck confit, sausage, and charcuterie.
Food like Vik's (not as good) with an atmosphere like Breads of India
in its heyday (though not as good as that either). The lamb wrap is a
serious amount of good food for the price. Conveniently located on
University near MLK Way. More locations in San Francisco.
Clay Pot Seafood
San Pablo near Solano in Albany. Modest Chinese food with Shanghai
specialties. Some dishes great (braised eel, smoked fish); others
merely OK. Convivial service, low prices.
There are scads of Mexican
places in the Bay Area, but only a handful display the truly vibrant
complexity of the cuisine. This one did, for a while. Pumpkin seeds roasted
with garlic and chiles are a great foil for real margaritas; tamales
are light, thin wrappers of masa around a bean filling with mole
negro; carnitas are probably the best I've had anywhere, deeply
browned and moist. Alas, the kitchen has ceased to innovate (my
eight-year-old noticed the mole that came with the chips was the same
as on her enchiladas), the maitre'd is surly and unhelpful, service is
perfunctory, and this place is currently below our threshold. Tell me
it's gotten better, please; I really want it back.
Tiny place! The kitchen takes up most of it, leaving enough
room for a half-dozen small tables, none seating more than four. In
good weather they may be able to fit a couple of tables on the
sidewalk. No reservations, so get there when they open at 5:30, or be
prepared to either stand outside and wait or (as we saw two parties
doing) berate and bother the staff until they agree to let you squeeze
into a too-small table. The menu is also tiny; it fits onto a
half-sized sheet of paper, three or four appetizers, a few main pastas
and pizzas, with wines on the back (all available by the glass, and
served in sensible tumblers). Portions, of Italian-inspired food
(appetizers, pizzas, pasta) are small but tasty. Worth a visit, just
Late entry in the small-plates bar category; food from Mexico, Peru,
and other parts south. Food is tasty enough (as you'd expect from a
Lalime's offshoot) but be warned, it's more a bar
than an eatery.
The texture is wrong (more superpremium ice cream instead of gelato)
and they don't always have the black sesame, my favourite. But the
flavours of nocciola and dark chocolate are good. Fruit
flavours are less successful. On Shattuck in downtown Berkeley.
Downscale Japanese on San Pablo across from Kermit Lynch and Cafe
Fanny. Nice homey atmosphere, long-time staff and long-time regulars,
but the food is uneven.
Inexplicably popular Chinese place in downtown Berkeley. The food's
okay, but what really sells is the nostalgia for when Chinese food was
the cheap and delicious alternative.
Asian-inspired small plates place, with extensive sake menu, including
flights. Menu seems to have stalled, the curse of many a small plates
place. How do these places survive? On College near Alcatraz.
Next door to Bay Wolf and living up to its standards. A single-page
menu of French standards interpreted by a husband-and-wife team with
great CVs, served on the narrow bottom floor of an old house. One of
those low-key restaurant experiences that creep up on you until you
float out the door totally satisfied. Not cheap, though. On Piedmont
University Avenue near San Pablo in Berkeley. Who but a Pakistani
expatriate would come to this low-rent corner and eat at this dingy,
dim hole in the wall? Well, me, and you, but not too many of us, or
they'll water down their bold, spicy tandoori fare. Chicken, lamb,
fish, ground meat kabobs, served with rice, roti, yogurt, and cucumber
Not just a ramen joint, but a full Japanese menu. Decent, not
thrilling; Ryowa is a better bet. On San Pablo in El Cerrito.
Sushi and grilled specials at lunch; robata bar added at dinner. No
reservations, so go really early, as it's popular. Lunch specials
dwindled in recent years to the point where they're no longer the
compelling bargain they were; if you're willing to spend $40/person at
dinner, you can eat well, but value is questionable at that point. On
Shattuck near Adeline in Berkeley.
La Rose Bistro
I'm a fan of small operations trying for high quality, and I enjoyed
my last meal at La Rose better than the first one I had there. The
duck strudel works better as an appetizer with less rice in it; my red
miso-glazed sea bass was quite good. Not everyone was as happy; the
panko-encrusted scallops across the table numbered exactly two, and
the pad thai-style noodles that came with it were too sweet. The chef
herself served some of our dishes, and came to ask how we were
enjoying our meal, always appreciated. I think it would be nice to be
a regular here. On Shattuck in downtown Berkeley.
This restaurant (probably like its proprietors) is settling into a
rich, comfortable middle age. They're no longer trying to impress us with
dazzle and flash, or to bring us in with bargain prix-fixe menus. What
we get now is solid, balanced Cal-Med cooking, delivered with low-key
grace. I'm no longer worried about this restaurant; it will remain
one of our standard destinations. On Gilman in North Berkeley.
Most Burmese food seems to me to take the worst elements of Indian and
Chinese. But the food at Nan Yang, when it works, combines the best of
both. Spacious and comfortable room, tablecloths and gracious
service. On College Avenue in Oakland.
Nizza La Bella
They're trying to be a small Riviera bistro, and
after a lengthy break-in period, they seem to have gotten it mostly
right: the narrow booths, the inexpensive menu, the late hours, and a
nice mix of comfort foods, leaning heavily on a wood-fired oven
(calzone, pizza, macaroni and cheese, beef daube). Interesting
cocktail menu. This place is clearly filling a niche; it's quite
popular, and becoming more so. On San Pablo just north of Solano in
Japanese inspired, but concentrating on gentle, almost meditative
food. Noodles in soup, grilled and steamed food, specialty
teas. Austere and peaceful. On Fourth Street in Berkeley.
We haven't actually eaten here in several years; under former Chez
Panisse chef Paul Bertolli, this upscale restaurant has focussed on
honing the craft of Italian peasant food. Our last meals were uneven;
they seem to have gotten quite sparse and perfectionist. Still a
must-try if you've never been. On College Avenue in Oakland.
Pearl Oyster Bar
Replaced the not-lamented Red Tractor Cafe on College in Oakland.
Started out without reservations, but they now have a reservation
service on their website, which I discovered only by chance. We
snagged a 5:30 same-day table, but watched parties being turned away
throughout our meal. Despite the trendy design, we in our schlumpy
clothes were never made to feel unwelcome or out of place. On our first
visit it was frustrating to split dishes such as the trio of tartares
among five people, so this time we ordered two orders of our
selections: spicy tuna poke (with cubes of cucumber in a Korean-style
sesame/chili dressing), spring rolls (made with rice paper and briefly
deep-fried, containing a fish mousse green with herbs), Maine peekytoe
crabcakes (properly made with just enough binding to hold them
together), misoyaki black cod (the portobello fritters that came with
this were the one part of the meal that didn't work). Desserts at
Pearl are unexpectedly good: an heirloom apple and huckleberry crisp
with Tahitian vanilla bean gelato ("This is what Bendean's should have
been," my wife said), a light, tall Meyer lemon cheesecake, and a hot
fudge sundae that beats renditions at Rivoli and Dona Tomas.
A dim sum place, in the same mall as Sushi Zone, with rows of chairs
at the entrance for waiting. You'll need them. We arrived at eleven on
Sunday and had a 45-minute wait; as we were seated, they were handing
out numbers 80 higher than ours. The women pushing the carts are even
more English-challenged than usual, so much so that one wonders if
it's supposed to be part of the concept. Some nice flavours in
unexpected places, but food arrived irregularly (standards har gow and
shu mai at the very end, when no one wanted them any more) and overall
this was a little too frustrating an experience. Go on weekdays with
someone who speaks Cantonese.
Joint venture between Thep Phenom (SF) and Berkeley Thai House. The
food is good, if a little sweet, and well-presented in a pleasant
dining room. For a long while, our best bet for Thai in the East Bay,
but recent meals have been pretty standard. In the new
Pacific East Mall in Albany, a fascinating destination in its own
Chez Panisse in-laws revitalized this basic taqueria, concentrating on
high-quality ingredients and impressive consistency. Basic setup is
similar to Cactus but the food is not really picante. Currently below
our threshold, though very kid-friendly, and open late. On Sixth just
south of Gilman in north Berkeley.
A typical Vietnamese menu of vermicelli bowls, pho, and
rice plates. The difference here is that the servers are genuinely
friendly and helpful (something unheard of in most Vietnamese
places). Portions are generous and well-prepared; spring rolls were
fresh, crisp, and tasty, vermicelli was properly soaked and separated,
lots of mint (could have used some basil and coriander, also). The
nuoc cham was too sweet with not enough fish sauce and lime, but
that's typical, too. The rice plates that went by looked enormous. A
good option in downtown Berkeley (Center near Shattuck in Berkeley).
Rick and Ann's
We're not normally breakfast-out people; we can do a good job of it at
home, with little effort. But if you need it, Rick and Ann's is the
place to go. Near the Claremont Hotel in south Berkeley. Don't drink
their coffee; there's a Peet's next door.
Upscale Cal-Ital without the prices or pretention. A near-perfect
neighbourhood restaurant experience, though it could do with more
seasonal innovation. On Solano Avenue in north Berkeley.
Ryowa Ramen House
Kobe-style ramen, supposedly; all I know is that the noodles are
properly chewy, the broth complex with a hint of spiciness, and this
is winter food, because I can't eat it in summer without breaking into
a full-body sweat. I usually have the "original ramen"; the vegetarian
ramen is also excellent, as is the kimchi in little jars on the
table. Skateboard videos on the TV, racks of manga for patrons to
read; this place has atmosphere to burn, though perhaps not the
atmosphere most people seek. On University near Shattuck in Berkeley.
Interesting things are happening on the block of Telegraph just south
of Dwight in Berkeley. The promise of Saigon City's upscale
Vietnamese tempted us with memories of Slanted Door back in the early
days before it became an institution. For starters, we had imperial
rolls (well done), banana flower salad (nice presentation, with a
composed salad of shreds of grilled chicken, banana flower, and other
ingredients served in a huge petal), and calamari cake (a daily
special variation on a deep-fried fish cake). Mains were all good and
the portions were generous. Lemongrass chicken was not a typical
hasty stir-fry, but had a reddish-brown complex sauce. The clay pot
sea bass was properly cooked, with caramelized sauce; we also had
daily specials of bo kho (beef shank stew) and red curry
duck. Desserts were an unexpected bonus: tiramisu which wasn't soggy
or heady with alcohol; kaffir lime creme brulee which had the right
ratio of brulee to creme, being served in a wide shallow dish; and a
comped vanilla bean flan with the right texture and sweetness (not to
excess). The chef came out to chat with us; his mom is in charge of
the front room, and was also quite friendly. Quite a find;
we'll be back.
Saigon Seafood Harbor
Nothing to do with Vietnam; the name refers to a Hong Kong
neighbourhood. This place apparently does good fresh-out-of-the-tank
dinners, but we went for dim sum, which was quite good -- certainly
better than anything we've had in the East Bay or SF lately. Just
north of the Pacific East Mall in Richmond.
Santa Fe Bistro
Center near Shattuck in Berkeley. Offshoot of the classic Santa Fe Bar
and Grill serves bargain bistro food at lunch -- well, not the bargain
it used to be, but not bad. Food is not stunning, but good value
considering the quality. Order at counter, food brought to you. More
conventional (and expensive) at dinner.
On College Avenue near Ashby in Berkeley. Fifteen years after the
Sichuan/Hunan craze peaked, someone had the bright idea to revive it,
but in a large pleasant room with a modern open kitchen and attentive,
efficient service. The food is well-executed if not a revelation (or
particularly authentic, for that matter), and prices are quite
reasonable for the quantities. Near-clone on Solano in Berkeley,
Former owners (architects by profession) of Cafe Pastoral in Berkeley
couldn't stay away from the business and opened this spacious
restaurant near Jack London Square in Oakland. The kitchen and service
were overwhelmed on the night we went, but food showed promise. I owe
these guys for a lot of great meals, so I'll be back someday.
Respectable sushi on a traffic island where Shattuck briefly splits
into two one-way streets just south of University Avenue in
Berkeley. Seems a bit faded, but chirashi sushi at lunch was
surprisingly decent, no filler.
Many consider this the best sushi in the East Bay. What we had,
sitting at the bar and letting the sushi chef (who obviously runs the
whole show in this fairly small space) choose, was good but not
outstanding. Still, he clearly knows what he's doing and cares, and
the calm atmosphere would reward those who choose to become regulars.
Trattoria La Siciliana
Pastas and desserts are great, mains are so-so. Pleasant and
desperately popular space (no reservations). On College Avenue (the
Elmwood district) in Berkeley.
Uneven tropical food, served in a nice back patio and odd-shaped
indoor space. Order carefully and you'll get a good meal. On Piedmont
Avenue in Oakland.
The room is clearly high-concept, with a waterfall (down a guiding clear
sheet) facing one on entry; altogether more upscale in appearance than
Saigon City across the street. Our server didn't quite get it; he
seemed more like an engineering student playing at being a server,
with a crispness verging on smug. We ordered the roll sampler
(customizable by number of people, but we got it for two): mango roll,
Unicorn roll, crispy mango prawn, imperial roll, chao zhou roll, prawn
spring roll. This came with a total of five dipping sauces (one did
double duty) explained to us by the server. All of this fuss actually
worked; the rolls and sauces had distinct flavours, and when I got one
wrong, it didn't work as well. We also ordered the lotus rootlet salad
with prawns, which worked, but wasn't a revelation. The table shared
four mains. Five-spice duck mosaic with came with a tower of baby bok
choy concealing a duck leg, while the breast had been sliced and
arranged. The other three were caramelized bass fillet, "seafood
baked" (scallops, prawns, calamari, and vegetables in jasmine rice),
and smoked eggplant with scallion, the last one particularly good
(even my nine-year-old admitted it, and eggplant is one of the few
things she really doesn't care for). Desserts looked unexceptional, so
we passed. The food at Unicorn was impressive, and the only
reason I don't rank it with Saigon City is that the atmosphere was not
as friendly. Unicorn was trying too hard to be a destination; they
need to relax a little. We'll still return.
A counter at the back of an East Indian grocery store serving snacks
on weekends has expanded into a warehouse space next door and added
light meals. You order and pick up at a counter, and dump your
disposable dishes into huge garbage bins when you're done. But they've
put in decent tables and chairs, they clean them more often, and most
importantly, the food has remained terrific despite their popularity
and renovations. My younger daughter's favourite, hell, a favourite of
all of us, and a must-visit (try the chole bhature on weekdays, or the
masala dosa on weekends). On Allston near Fourth Street in west Berkeley.
Not a restaurant, but a Thai Buddhist Temple whose members volunteer
on Sunday mornings to serve food as a fundraiser. You exchange money
for refundable tokens, and then line up at various places to get food:
one line for green papaya salad mixed and pounded in front of you
(worth paying for just to watch it being made), one for fried chicken
with sticky rice, one for ripe mango with sweet sticky rice, one for a
steam table at which you can get a dozen different Thai dishes (alas,
not made by volunteers any more, but indifferent "donations" from
local restaurants), and one where they're deep-frying coconut custard
cakes. Picnic tables and plastic cutlery are available. Inexpensive
and for the most part delicious, but get there before 10:30 or you'll
be standing in line a long time. (Eating Thai food for Sunday brunch
is not at all difficult.) On Russell near Ashby in Berkeley.
Excellent falafel sandwich, perhaps a bit pricey at $6.75
(lunch) but large and quite tasty, with hints of anise and a good mix
of vegetables, expertly wrapped in crisp lavash. Don't expect a quick
meal; the place was nearly empty but we waited over half an hour. The
organic, homegrown ideology leads me to suspect that the food is made
pretty much from scratch to order, so it's a good thing that the place
isn't large. Shattuck at University in Berkeley.
SF restaurant relocated to the East Bay because the owners were tired
of the commute. Casa de Eva and Mazzini went under at this location,
but this one may stay, offering solid comfort food and friendly
service. Signature dishes include twice-cooked goat cheese souffle
(surprisingly light), lamb stew with winter vegetables, panko-crusted
fish, and warm apple galette with caramel ice cream. Verging on
complacent, but a place to take your fussy relatives. On Telegraph in
Former entries, recently removed because of loss of quality:
Bobby's Backdoor BBQ, Breads of
India, China Village, Garibaldi, Jimmy Bean.